Service charge

The Inevitable Civil Service Slaughter Awaits a Driver

May 19 — Our passport renewal supervisors prefer to go electronic with the surge in post-pandemic applications and manage issuance online. Immigration Malaysia announced recently.

The move towards digitalization has been made in stages.

Some citizens took offense to this, as their preference is to see their tax money in motion.

The column infers that the sight test.

Typical of the old. The caller shows up at a physical facility, chooses a queue number, waits and then finally stands at a counter. Here, immigration officer A retrieves the folder containing said applicant’s documents, skims through it, and passes it to officer B, who does the same.

Stamps are removed from drawers, signatures affixed, carbon copies filed, then agent C to D to E until K does the same – over hours and days – until a passport is physically delivered by agent L to the applicant.

This takes time and patience from said applicant. However, the extended experience allows taxpayers to witness the process. Half-paced movements of various people in uniform while other nondescript individuals lurk in the hallways – presumably repairmen. And there are the random tea breaks to keep it legit.

Ignore the digression.

When citizens see moving bodies, it becomes clear how taxes are spent.

The Immigration Department logo is seen at its headquarters in Putrajaya on January 10, 2019. – Photo by Yusof Mat Isa

But here’s the catch.

During these decades, the volume of digitized data has crossed a threshold of no return, and things cease to be manual. It’s an electronic life now. For example, the two pandemic years when most civil servants sat at home, government delivery did not collapse. Not in this digital age.

Which leads to the uncomfortable conclusion. If the government is functioning when most of its staff are sitting at home, how many of these officials are needed to keep the country going?

The column weaves from the over-efficiency of immigration relative to history to an electoral question of “can membership drop”?

Surely it must. The argument is made even when the political courage to engage it goes wrong.

The column encouraged this before the pandemic and recalls it again since the matter is more pressing today. The government is too overwhelmed with recurrent expenditures to have the capacity to effectively develop the country through capital expenditures.

Wages for wages good – to support families – stifles the lifeblood of government and its ability to do good, no matter which party is in charge.

How to manage a downsizing of the civil service?

Two things to remember. First, not all jobs should disappear. Upgrade, pay more for strategic jobs, reduce administrative roles.

Second, in light of automation, globalization and the information age, change the way jobs are done and redistributed.

For example, teachers trained at the expense of clerks in schools and countless peripheral ministries. Even if it reduces the workforce.

It is not unprecedented. In the 1990s, at the end of the war with the communists, police members from the redundant units of the forest reserve were retrained for other sections such as traffic.

The Communists had signed a peace treaty. A unit in Kuala Pilah is more likely to spot a Malayan Tiger than dissidents in the jungle.

And yes, again, this column candidly admits, restructuring would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs over a long period of perhaps a decade. However, no proposal would require pink slips overnight. Public servants are people before voters, and they must not be abandoned.

Retraining and career changes through a careful voluntary departure plan must be done with the intention of leaving no one behind.

Whatever the method or period, the long march to streamline service must begin. Malaysia can only have the civil service it can afford to have in the medium term.

Abuse and grease

Higher salaries are key to ending widespread corruption in the civil service. This is only possible by getting rid of fat.

Moreover, overcrowded departments on behalf of the workforce are petri dishes for the transplant. Too many lead to unnecessary technocracy and confusion over responsibilities, which the unscrupulous exploit to generate illicit payments to navigate.

Digitization promotes transparency, but it also reduces human elements in the work process.

The quality of service as fat is dispensed increases perceived and felt professionalism as fewer capable people operate with the aid of technology.

The calculation is not difficult. Of course, politics is the opposite.

Election, election, election

Service is important, but not so much when considered as a percentage of the larger workforce.

Yet civil servants are still more likely to vote as a bloc. More than 10,000 voters on average for each parliamentary seat. They can make the difference between victory and defeat.

That’s why prime ministers would miss their spouses’ birthdays if it meant attending a key public service event. The votes are there if the Prime Minister remains the employer.

Which explains the electoral defeats in the world when the civil servants are pissed off.

But how long can the sauce last, at least in principle.

Certainly those who are just filling in the blanks to collect paychecks are finding they have the security that those in the private sector lack. There, jobs must correspond to real needs.

As private sector jobs will be lost in the coming years as companies maximize their profits through digitized workplaces, these Malaysians’ objections to retaining civil service will grow.

Add to that the impending consumption taxes to be paid for the government, anger can turn into anger.

Yet leadership is lacking in this regard.

Not the prime minister. Certainly not the Leader of the Opposition.

This matter will escalate in the background until conditions deteriorate to such an extent that the leader who previously supported him backs down. With the excuse his hands are tied by economic impossibilities.

At this point, the option of a soft landing, a planned reduction expires and choices are faced by the country. Not pleasant choices and the results will be even less pleasant.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.